Sunday, 24 March 2013

25 drugs, 25 portraits.

When browsing the internet the other day, I came across a series of pictures completed by an artist under the influence of LSD:

Further investigation has told me (and I can't vouch for how accurate it is) that the drawings were the product of a test conducted in the late 1950's by the US government into the effects of LSD on the mind. The artist's subject was the medical assistant who had injected him with the drug. I found the drawings profoundly interesting, as they allow you to chart the changes of the mind and the drug's affect on the (unnamed) artist's creative capacity. After 20 mins the drawing is still relatively sedate and pedestrian, meanwhile at 2 hrs 45 mins the drawing seems almost cubist and surrealist 

Thinking about this experiment, I wondered if any other artist had (willingly) done a similar test. After doing some research, I discovered Bryan Lewis Saunders, an artist from Washington DC. Saunders is a prolific self-portrait artist: having completed one a day for the past 21 years (totalling over 8000 drawings!). He is also a frequent (and indiscriminate) drug user. Saunders is famous for having created 25 individual self-portraits after taking 25 different drugs. It is extremely interesting - and, more often than not, disturbing - to see the effects these mind-altering drugs have on his creative process. He regularly incorporates the name of the drug he has taken into the portrait, and the images largely reflect the nature/effect of the drug; for example the 'mushrooms' portrait features psychedelic colours, whilst the 'cocaine' portrait is erratic, with harsh pencil lines.

The portraits largely speak for themselves. I'll just include a few of them, but the full scale is overwhelming. Find it here:

[For comparison, here's a photo of Saunders looking 'normal'(ish)]



Bath Salts

Cough Syrup


Crystal Meth

G13 (potent marijuana)







Sometimes, the drug heightens the artist's sensory perceptions, at other times, it dulls them. Clearly, this is a fascinating and perplexing oeuvre, which undoubtedly highlights the twenty-first century artists' ambition to persistently probe and challenge the boundaries of the 'conventional' art. Saunders finds and invents new, daring, extreme ways to depart from his own mind, in order to express himself in a fresh, original way.

NB: If this post interests you, take a look at my other post on Wain, who's schizophrenia altered his paintings. Are there similarities between Wain's and Saunders's work?


Saturday, 23 March 2013

Words of the week #8

David Foster Wallace 'This is water'

Adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio 

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude - but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete ...
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues". This is not a matter of virtue - it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home - you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job - and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.
Or if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks ...
If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Epic Love

Abramovic started to collaborate with Ulay in the 70s.

After realising that their relationship wasn't working anymore they decided to do a 3 month trek across the Wall of China where they met one last time to say goodbye. In 2010 this is what happened...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Journey in Satchidananda

From the late Alice Coltrane. Wife of John Coltrane, auntie to Flying Lotus and a brilliant jazz pianist, composer and harpist.

The American West

Robert Adams has journeyed the American West in a bid to capture its vastness, its sparse beauty and its transformation. He documents the everyday, taking pictures of shacks, caravans, shopfronts, churches, and sidewalks. But this isn't what he is interested in, what he has photographed- in varying shade of grey- is what has been lost and what remains. His photos are achingly beautiful and stunningly simple and well worth having a look at.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Words of the week #7

Walking West

Anyone with quiet pace who
walks a grey road in the West
may hear a badger underground where   
in deep flint another time is

Caught by flint and held forever,   
the quiet pace of God stopped still.   
Anyone who listens walks on   
time that dogs him single file,

To mountains that are far from people,   
the face of the land gone grey like flint.   
Badgers dig their little lives there,   
quiet-paced the land lies gaunt,

The railroad dies by a yellow depot,   
town falls away toward a muddy creek.   
Badger-grey the sod goes under
a river of wind, a hawk on a stick.

Sunday, 3 March 2013


Many have heard of Sigur Ros, yet it is less commonly known that the lead singer Jonsi also worked on a side project entitled Riceboy Sleeps, stripping Sigur Ros's music of its more popular rhythms and instead presenting us with an album which consists purely of instrumental ambient music. Recorded on acoustic instruments in Iceland, we can hear echoes of waves and the surrounding natural landscape amongst the album's sparse orchestration. What I find particularly striking however are the accompanying visuals, which at once mirror and also enhance the experience of listening to Jonsi's music. The album was released alongside displays of the singer's accompanying artwork, where the CD is presented in a box carved out of an old, dusty book.

As part of the collection Jonsi did a series of paintings on windows, drawing our attention to the actual medium from which the work is created. A window provides us with an invisible barrier between the space we are in and the interior or exterior realm seen through it, allowing us a brief insight into a place different to the one we inhabit. When looking at these paintings, we get the impression that for a brief moment, we are looking through the window into a past world. The images appear decayed, suggesting that they are all that remain of a distant time, perhaps reflecting a fleeting memory, or a photograph which has remained deeply buried in a box and is rarely looked upon. There is a somewhat naive quality to them, where images of children playing in the sea or looking at birds evoke a nostalgic vision of lost childhood and youthful innocence. Like Jonsi's music, the windows leave us with the haunting impression of somewhere distant, giving us a fleeting glimpse of what cannot be recaptured...

~ MD

Friday, 1 March 2013

Louis Wain: the effects of schizophrenia on the perception of the artist.

Louis Wain (1860 – 1939) was a Victorian English artist best known for his drawings, which often feature anthropomorphised wide-eyed cats and kittens, and use bright colours. Although this point has been contested, some psychologists argue that Wain suffered from schizophrenia in his later years, and that this degeneration can be seen in his works. Whatever the psychological background, by contrasting Wain's earlier and later works one witnesses a drastic alteration, a dramatic transgression from conventional, naturalistic, realistic paintings using sedate, true-to-life colours, to vibrant, psychedelically-hued cats with disturbingly large, human-like eyes, painted in increasingly erratic brushstrokes. Wain's entire painting style seems to have broken down, becoming far less constrained and perfected, exploding into sporadic, individualistic paintings (which may be more accurately described as patterns, towards the end), which are undoubtedly more expressive and intriguing. Wain's oeuvre charts the progression of an increasingly distorted perception: the effects of his (apparent) mental illness are as beautiful as they are affecting. 

An example of Wain's earliest work.

Note the gradual transition.

And his later images.